Four Stone Hearth Letters

The Four Stone Hearth is a blog carnival that specializes in anthropology. Anthropology is the study of humankind, throughout all times and places. This discourse focuses primarily on four lines of research:

* socio-cultural anthropology
* bio-physical anthropology
* archaeology
* linguistic anthropology

Each one of these subfields represent a stone in our hearth, a blog carnival aims to publish content from all aspects of the blogosphere. Click “Read More” below to see this week’s issue!

The Four Stone Hearth Tablets

Decades ago, archaeologists discovered in an ancient tell that has since been bulldozed to make way for a McDonalds (would you like fries and a Coke with your provenance?) four clay tablets of cuneiform script but in a language as yet undeciphered –until today!

The language is new and has been named Carnival and is spoken in various ancient lands, including FrStnHrth. All we have are the consonants, so by plugging in a soft e sound, we get FerStenHerth, a land that suffered the fate of others during the collapse of the Bronze Age and the attacks of the Sea Peoples. Below is a translation of these tablets.

ArchaeologyTablet 1: Archlgy

Alun’s Letter
To Nefer-khepru-re, Great King, king of Egypt, thus speaks Alun Salt, Great King, king of Archaeoastronomy, your brother. I and my house, my horses and my chariots, my notables and my land, we are well. May well-being reign over my brother and his house, his horses and his cars, his notables and his land.

I present to you the problem of The Orientation of Roman Camps, to which I have treated the data as a binomial distribution. This debate about Roman Camps, which appears on the hallowed tablets of the Oxford Journal of Archaeology, is of great concern my brother. I vented my anger with my brother with the following words: Should my brother not know that I am ill? Why has he not supported my head? Why has he not worried and sent his messengers? These Romans will surely be the end of the Bronze Age!

A Letter From Tim Ruler of Remote Central to the King of Egypt
To Nibmuaria, King of Egypt, my brother, say: Thus says Tim, King of Remote Central, your brother. It is well with me. May it be well with you; with your household, your wives, your sons, your nobles, your warriors, your horses, your chariots, and throughout your land may it be very well… [23 more lines of well-wishes destroyed]…

Behold, one chariot, two horses, one male servant, one female servant, out of the booty from the land of Hatti I have sent you. And as a gift for my brother, the stone tools of a civilization in a far away land of a far away time [The cuneiform hyperlink is reconstructed from similar tablets]: Walker Hill a Pre-Clovis Site: MN Archaeologist Says No.

Fragment of a letter from Paul, King of Wannabe, to Akhenaten, King of Egypt
And now, as to the tablet you have sent me, why have you put the name of my brother above my name? And who is it who troubles the good relations between us? Has such behavior become custom? My brother, have you written to me thinking that we become allies? If you are my brother, why have you praised my name, when I am no better thought of than a cadaver? […] But your name […] I rub out […] surely as the Toltec of a far away land rubbed out the Maya of Chitzen Itza!

A Letter From Martin Rundkvist Lord of Aardvarchaeology
To the king, my lord, my god, my Sun: Message of Abi-Milku, your servant. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, 7 times and 7 times. I am the dirt under the sandals of the king, my lord. My lord is the Sun who comes forth over all lands day by day, according to the way (of being) the sun, his gracious father, who gives life by his sweet breath and returns with his north wind; who establishes the entire land in peace, by the power of his arm : ha-ap-si; who gives forth his cry in the sky like Baal, and all the land is frightened at his cry.
The servant herewith writes to his lord that he heard the gracious messenger of the kind who came to his servant, and the sweet breath that came forth from the mouth of the king, my lord, to his servant–his breath came back! The message carried is of the Oscarian Archaeology Journal On-Line!

Physical AnthropologyTablet 2: PHSCL ANTHRPLG

A Letter from Jeremy Bruno to Amenhotep III
To my lord, my king, my gods, my sun, this is said:
Jeremy, the dust of thy feet, at the feet of my lord, my king, my gods, my sun, seven times, and seven times more, I fall down. Behold, true to my lord, my king. I look on one side, and I look on the other side, and there is no light; but I look on my lord my king, and there is light. A brick may move away from under the coping, but I shall not move from under the feet of my master.
Let now my lord my king enquire about me of the AAAS Symposium: The Reduction of the Hominid Species.

Letter from blgtnjew, Prince of Hominin Dental Anthropology, to Akhenaton
To the Great One, thus speaks BLGTNJEW, at your feet do I fall.
You must know that Shipti-Ba’al and Zimrida are conspiring, and Shipti-Ba’al has said to Zimrida:
Many people seem to think that the bones and teeth of our ancestors as well as previous generations leave us with little information. In fact, that is not true. The bones and teeth of our ancestors, whether they are hundreds or millions of years old, can tell us a vast amount of information.

More on this revelation of dental conspiracy on another tablet still in my kiln [cuneiform hyperlink reconstructed], Basics: Dental Anthropology.

A Letter from Yann Klimentidis to Tiye
To Tiye, Lady of Egypt. Thus speaks Yann Klimentidis, King of Yann Klimentidis’ Weblog. May everything be well with you. May everything go well for your house, your son, may everything be perfectly well for your soldiers and for everything belonging to you. Everything is well with me and I am keeping with my theme on the climatic conditions during the major stages of human evolution. Visit with me and hear my thoughts on Paleoclimate and Human Evolution.

A Letter from Greg Laden to Akhenaten
To the king, my Lord, thus speaks Greg Laden, [your] servant. [I have prostrated myself] seven times seven times at the feet of my Lord, the king. The city of […] I have entered. May [the king] know that all the countries are at peace, (but) there is war against me and it is said by Mims We Shouldn’t Be Surprised That Chimps Hunt With Spears. With humble regard to Mims on Chimps: I agree and disagree. Thus, then, may the king take care of the troops of archers. May he send troops of archers against the Chimps who commit evil deeds against the king, my Lord.

A letter from Kambiz of Primatology.org
To the king, my lord, my god, my Sun: Message of Kambiz, your servant. I fall at the feet of the king, my lord, 7 times and 7 times. I am the dirt under the sandals of the king, my lord. My lord is the Sun who comes forth over all lands day by day, according to the way (of being) the sun, his gracious father, who gives life by his sweet breath and returns with his north wind; who establishes the entire land in peace, by the power of his arm : ha-ap-si; who gives forth his cry in the sky like Baal, and all the land is frightened at his cry.

The servant herewith writes to his lord that he heard the gracious messenger of the kind who has One more word on, and a video of, chimps hunting with spears. As you no doubt have heard from my king brothers, these Chimps threaten our cities as the Savanna Chimpanzees Hunt with Tools.
Is this breaking news: Chimps hunt using spears?

Letter from Kambiz of Anthropology.net
To the king, my lord, my god, my sun, the sun in the sky. Thus says Kambiz, the amelu of Anthropology.net, ruler of FerStenHerth, the dust of your two feet, the stable-man of your horse, the Sonny to your Bono: At the two feet of the king, my lord, the sun in the sky, seven times and seven times I prostrate myself both upon the belly and back. And to all that the king, my lord, has told me I have paid close attention. I am the king’s servant and the dust of your two feet.

Let the king, my lord, be aware that my beef is not with what Yann and afarensis are reporting, but the people who are theorizing this all. Hold court with me and share A brief critique about the extinction of Neandertals due to climate change

LinguisticsTablet 3: LNGSTCS

Letter from Corcaighist to FerStenHerth
To FerStenHerth, the ruler of Blogosphere say: Thus says the king: He sends this tablet to you, saying to you, Be on your guard; guard the place of the king where you are. Pay close attention to what he tells you so that the king does not find fault in you. Everything he tells you, pay careful attention and carefully carry it out. And be on guard! Be on guard! Do not be negligent.

Bealocwealm hafað fréone frecan forth onsended,
Giedd sculon singan gléomenn sorgiende,
On Meduselde pæt he ma no wære,
His dryhtne dyrest and mæga deorost.
Bealo…

Read the remainder of Éowyn’s lament at [cuneiform hyperlink reconstructed] Bealocwealm hafað fréone frecan forth onsended.

A Letter from Katie, Princess of TEFL Logue, to Akhenaten
Let the king my Lord hear the word of his servant!
Zirdamyasha has withdrawn from Biryawaza. He was with Shuta, the servant of the king in the city of [………] and I said nothing to him, but he deserted to me, and now Shuta has written to me: is Frananglais: A Compromise Language?!’ But I did not consent to give him up. Behold, Accho is (as Egyptian) as Magdal in Egypt, but the king my lord has not heard that Shuta has turned against me. Now let the king my lord send his commissioner to fetch him.

EthnographyTablet 4: ETHNGRPHY

Letter from Robert Philen of Robert Philen’s Blog

To the king, my Lord and my God and Sun, thus speaks Robert Philen, your servant, the dust under your feet. At the feet of the king, my Lord and my God and Sun, seven times and seven times I prostrate myself.

I have heard the words that the king wrote to me and who I am that the king lose his land through my fault? I am the servant of the king, and I have not rebelled and I have not sinned, and I do not retain my tribute, and I do not disregard the demands of his commissioner. They defame to me with ill will, but may the king, my Lord, not accuse me of revolting!

Moreover, my crime is, so they say, that I discovered Bertrand Russell’s Chicken: Sign Experience and the Human Mind!

*********************************

I hope you enjoyed the creative license I took with this week’s Four Stone Hearth. In case you didn’t get it, I modeled the “letters” above after the Amarna letters, copying some of them verbatim and substituting names and websites. There are one or two mild gags hidden in the text here and there, but nothing spectacular. At least three of the links were sent to me by bloggers other-than-the-authors, specifically the links in the Linguistics and Ethnography sections.

My hope was to make this week’s Four Stone Hearth fun and desirable for future iterations. There are a LOT OF ANTHRO BLOGGERS OUT THERE! Send your posts! Get some traffic! Find a sense of communitas (to invoke Victor Turner) and liminality!

The next Four Stone Hearth will be hosted at Mayacaves.org on March 14th.

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Biblical Archeaology: Tomb of Jesus?

James Cameron is to release a documentary that claims to reveal the discovery of the tomb of Jesus Christ. He claims the evidence is statistical analysis and DNA… showing the Messiah was buried next to his wife, Mary Magdalene and their son, Judah (the “Grandson of God?”).

Before I read further in the article, my first thought was what were the comparators and controls?

Apparently, construction workers were erecting an apartment complex when they found the 2,000 year old ossuaries in a burial cave on the West Bank in East Talpiot back in 1980. 1980!? The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has been pressuring archaeologists to publish or be punished lately, and there are excavations from the 1980’s that are just now finding their reports in publication, but, surely, such a discovery would have found academic publication far sooner than now!

The article linked above cites the IAA as noting that, of the 10 ossuaries found, 6 had the names Mary, Matthew, Jesua son of Joseph, Mary, Jofa, and Judah son of Jesua. All very common Jewish names unless I’m mistaken. The article goes on to paraphrase the filmmakers as saying that their find in no way implies that Jesus wasn’t actually resurrected 3 days after being killed. They really didn’t need to, since modern medical science informs us in this regard.

What the article doesn’t tell us is what the comparators were in the statistical and DNA analyses James Cameron and his film crew used (or, ostensibly, outsourced to actual researchers). Presumably, one will need to pay $7.50 (not including popcorn and a drink) to find out.

Robert Park‘s list of the Warning Signs of Pseudoscience lists as #1 “the discoverer pitches his claim directly to the media.” I think this fits. As time goes on, perhaps other warning signs will emerge: a powerful establishment (religion? “mainstream” archaeology?) will seek to suppress the claim; the scientific effect at the limits of detection (we’ll have to wait for the statistical/DNA data sets to see); evidence is anecdotal (so far anyway); the discoverer worked in isolation (since 1980!?).

Or… maybe the data is genuine. I’m not holding my breath.

Development of farming compared and contrasted between two regions: the Tehuacan Valley in Mesoamerica and the Levant in the Near East

Several hypotheses exist to explain the development of agriculture: Childe’s oasis theory; Sauer’s sedentary hypothesis; and Binford’s marginal habitat hypothesis.

V.G. Childe’s oasis theory proposed that major climate changes following the Pleistocene created “oases” of habitable regions, which forced humans into close proximity to plants and animals, causing them to develop familiarity with each other. This, Childe presumed, made it easier for humans to adapt plants or animals for their uses. One of the faults with this hypothesis is that it fails to explain why previous interglacial periods didn’t result in domestication or why domestication occurred without “oases” of habitation.

Carl Sauer’s sedentary hypothesis suggested that domestication began because of rich resources that freed people to experiment, giving rise to domestication. Luis Binford accepted this explanation, but argued that it wouldn’t be reason enough to abandon hunting-gathering in favor of the more difficult and labor-intensive food production strategy. Binford’s hypothesis of marginal habitat was, then, that demography became the driving force to make food production a favorable strategy.

Binford’s hypothesis, in my opinion, is represented in both the Tehuacan Valley of Mesoamerica as well as the Levant of the Near East.

The microbands of 1 to 2 families in the Tehuacan Valley at around 10,000 – 7,000 years ago were hunter-gatherers, but, as populations increased, they found themselves increasingly circumscribed to the environment, which naturally gave rise to competition for resources resulting in conflicts and unifications as they found social solutions to their resource problems. At around 7,000 – 5,000 years ago, domesticates like avocado, chilis and squash were introduced to the Tehuacan Valley. Maize is introduced at the end of this period, but isn’t an important part of the diet.

Between 5,000 and 3,500 years ago macrobands of up to 100 people emerged as did new domesticates of like the bottle gourd and crooked-neck squash. In addition, the mano and metate is introduced for grinding. Maize is used, but not as an important member of the diet. It was between 3,500 – 2,300 years ago that sites in the valley became the most sedentary and were occupied year round. It was also at this point that corn appeared as a clearly more important addition to the diet and with larger kernels that must have developed due to selective processes that affected the development of the species. Cotton is also being used and, perhaps, cultivated. River terraces are settled and permanent structures in the form of pit houses are used.

The Natufian culture of the Levant in the Near East also began as a hunter-gatherer society at around 13,000 – 12,800 years ago. Climatic improvements of this period were favorable to hunting and gathering food resources, but this also made it favorable for population increases. Foragers during this period were socially affected since nearly every eco-zone was occupied, pressuring them into semi-sedentary lifeways with reduced mobility. The wetter conditions made sedentism a favorable and practical lifeway. Early Natufians, often referred to as the earliest farmers, certainly cultivated wild wheat and barley, as evidenced by sickle blade analysis that revealed silica gloss on microliths from reaping grains. Their interactions with cereal grains and other plants likely led to cultivation as conditions became challenging with the Younger Dryas period of dryer, colder conditions that lasted from 12,900 – 11,500 years before present as higher elevations saw a brief but rapid return to glacial conditions. In the Levant, this caused rapid reduction in vegetation belts, forcing humans to seek new subsistence strategies.

Intentional cultivation was now the key to surviving as Late Natufians responded to the effects of the Younger Dryas, which likely caused unintentional modification to the plants as certain characters of the species were selected, specifically a tougher rachis that didn’t allow the grain to easily disarticulate from the central stalk at maturity. Wheat became an important staple for the region, proving to be adaptable and able to provide necessary nutrients while affording the ability to be stored for consumption in times of famine. Sedentary lifeways were now necessary because of either the demographic problems associated with population densities or because of the need to manage and store crops. By the time farming was in full-swing in the Levant, villages of 300-500 individuals were present.

In both the Tehuacan and the Natufian cultures, demographic pressures provided the impetus for moving to sedentism and farming as macrobands and early chiefdoms of hundreds of individuals sought viable subsistence strategies. Competition for resources may have led to warfare as well as unification, but the result was people working toward common goals of cultivating plants and managing animals in established “homelands.” With the Levantians, developing their staple crop of wheat was relatively rapid compared with the Mesoamericans who domesticated gourds, chilis, avocados and cotton before maize became an overwhelming important staple. In fact, maize was domesticated but remained a relatively unimportant crop for about 2,000 years before it was cultivated in significant quantities. Still, both cultures shared striking similarities in demographic pressures as their populations grew; the development of pit houses as they made the transition from mobile to sedentary; the use of grinding stones -mano and metate in Mesoamerica, and the quern in the Levant; the domestication of the dog; the development of pottery; the use of storage pits; and so on. One of the most significant differences was, perhaps, the introduction of the plow. This technology didn’t find its way into Mesoamerica because of a lack of draft animals until equines were introduced by European invaders.

References:

Binford, Lewis R. (1968). “Post-Pleistocene Adaptations.” In New Perspectives in Archaeology. Sally R. Binford and Lewis R. Binford, eds. Aldine Publishing Company, Chicago, pp. 313-342.

Braidwood, Robert J. (1960). The Agricultural Revolution. Scientific American, vol. 203, pp. 130-48.

Harris, Gregory (2007). Red hot chili pepper research spices up historical record: Archaeologists trace domestication and dispersal of Capsicum species. Eureka Alert [15-Feb-2007].

Sauer, Carl, O (1952) Agricultural origins and dispersals. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

(FICTION) A Day in the Life of Aqhat -a Mesopotamian Farm Boy

This is the first time I’ve posted any fiction here at Hot Cup of Joe, but I thought I’d share this short, short story. It’s only a few paragraphs and lends itself well to a blog post. I was tasked once during a class to come up with a bit of creative writing that gave a sense of what it was like for someone living in a one of the periods that were studied. The class was on prehistoric societies and covered Australopithecines to just before writing and cities. My focus for the assignment was the early Levant and what life would have been like for an adolescent in a time when agriculture was beginning to take off as a method of food production. What would he have seen? What would he have done? I drew some inspiration from a real Mesopotamian story of Aqhat, and anyone who has read it in Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, will recognize a few things.

Perhaps I’ll continue writing about Arqhat someday…

Read the short story below the fold.

Sunrise in the valley of Shapsh, in the region that will one day become known as the Fertile Crescent, was always one to behold for Aqhat. As the first son of Danel the Rapha-man, it was Aqhat the Youth’s responsibility to see to the affairs at hand. But those affairs could wait the few moments it took for Shapsh to bath the valley in golden light and early morning warmth. The plots of grain Aqhat’s family and others grew in the valley gave the sun-goddess for whom it was named its divine beauty, especially at sunrise.
A goat from the flock tried to nibble at the flat bread in Aqhat’s hand, pulling him back in from the divine scene before him and reminding him of his morning’s task. When Paghat gave him the two loaves, she tucked one in his robes and the other in his hand, “for the goat” she said with a knowing smile. Aqhat’s sister always seemed to know the future.
“Then it is yours!” Aqhat told the goat, laughing out loud. It was a fine morning and perhaps it would please Baal to show generosity to the goat. Aqhat gathered the rest of the flock and continued about his task of taking them to Ghazir at the village. Ghazir would then be charged to deliver the 5 goats to his master along with the sealed tokens. In exchange, Aqhat would receive one ass for his father’s farm. In addition to farming wheat, they also raised goats and these five were hand-picked by Danel to go to Ghazir’s master. Danel had many who were indebted to him and Danel was, himself, indebted to others. But because so many seemed to revere his father and seek his counsel on a great many things, Aqhat was sure more were indebt to Danel than he was to others. Aqhat chose, however, not to worry about such things and was happy to do his father’s bidding as it gave reason to visit the village.
Entering the village, Aqhat saw women grinding wheat or barley in querns for flour to make morning bread. Aqhat met Ghazir near the potter’s home at the village. It was here that most trading in the village was done and near the potter’s oven was also a baker’s since they shared the same wood for burning. The fire in the bread oven having already burnt offerings to first El then Baal, the baker was going about her task of plucking finished bread from the ashes and sticking replacements to the inside wall of the oven. Ghazir was busy chewing down the last bite of fresh bread when Aqhat spotted him.
Aqhat did not particularly like Ghazir nor did he trust him, but Danel was wise in giving his son the sealed tokens with the goats. Should Ghazir try to cheat his master by trading one of the goats before delivering them, Ghazir’s master would know once the seal was broken and the tokens counted. At some point, a middle-man such as Ghazir must have made an enemy and delivered his goods not knowing that the tokens inside were too many since the custom now included representing each token on the outside of the clay ball which sealed them. This way, Ghazir would know that the five goat symbols on the ball’s exterior would match the five tokens inside.
As Aqhat neared Ghazir, who still had crumbs of bread on his lips and in his beard, he held the ball and shook it so the tokens rattled.
“Where is my ass, Ghazir?”
“Aqhat the Youth! Come my friend, I’ll take you to him.”
Tied to a stake behind the potter’s house on the edge of the village was, indeed, Aqhat’s newly acquired ass. He traded Ghazir the ball of tokens and the stick he used to mildly threaten the goats for the rope securing the ass. “Keep a hold on this one and the rest will follow,” he told Ghazir. “If you have any more of that bread, offer him a piece and he will follow you anywhere.”
“Have you visited the skillful one that honors Khasis of late? He has a new bow that would be the envy of even Anath and he wants only nine sheqels of silver for it,” Ghazir informed.
“Since I have not even a single sheqel of dung, the Warrior Goddess can have it. For now, I must take my ass home. May your journey be safe, Ghazir.”
“And yours, Aqhat.”
Out of the village and back to his father’s home Aqhat led the ass, pausing only to allow it to drink from the water of the nearby brook. Looking back at the village, Aqhat wondered how many lived there now. Many of those that farmed the nearby lands had taken residence there and shared granaries and threshing floors as well as labor. Others who didn’t even farm were able to prosper there such as the potter and the skillful one who made things with his hands like bows and darts. Even the women who made bread seemed to find that task filled their day. The village was full of people to talk with, learn from, share stories with and sing with at happy times. Traders passed through from the places where the black cutting stones grew in the mountains, telling tales of adventures that Aqhat dared only dream of in private. Perhaps some day, Danel would move his family to the village as his business dealings seem to require more and more trips there anyway. Such a day Aqhat surely looked forward to.
Aqhat turned from the village on the horizon and toward his family’s farm and took his ass home.

Four Stone Hearth: Special Edition

A Four Stone Hearth PostBoa’s Blog was originally scheduled to host Four Stone Hearth today, but due to unforeseen circumstances, I’m going to substitute as host today.

Edit: As it happens, Boa’s Blog did have the Four Stone Hearth up, so let me extend my apologies for overstepping. Kambiz and I were online last night and realized that there hadn’t been any posts in a while at Boa’s Blog and were worried after midnight that it might not get published, so we went with plan B. I’d like to point everyone to his blog for the 9th issue of Four Stone Hearth.


Archaeology

Viking Period Amber Gaming Pieces, by Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology.
Martin describes the finds from a boat grave excavation in Östergötland, a province in the south of Sweden. He’s included photos of the spherical amber gaming pieces and a bit of discussion about the dating involved as well as how the game, hnefatafl, was probably played. Be sure to look through the comments, as there is a link by one of the commenters to a modern version of what the game may have looked like.

Apologetics Archaeology? Round Two. Christopher O’Brien has some very interesting remarks about Syro-Palestinian archeology and raises some valid question regarding agenda-driven research. There’s been some back-and-forth among blogs that deal with so-called “Biblical Archaeology” with regard to biblical-minimalists versus biblical-“maximumists” and Chris discusses some of it here and links to sites elsewhere that continue the discussions.

Cahokia Mounds circa 1989 by afarensis. He includes a brief discussion and some photos of the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, IL -just across the river from St. Louis (the Mississippi River, that is).

Cultural Anthropology and Ethnographic Studies

An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction. Greg Laden offers a first post in a series on the evolutionary perspective of human culture. In his own words, “an evolutionary view of what we are … what human beings are all about … is best framed in the context of a hunting and gathering way of life” Greg also has some interesting discussion going on in the comments section and has invited readers to suggest related topics for him to cover. As always, Greg’s blog is a good read! Go there! Tell him I sent you.

Linguistics

African Lingua Francas, by Christopher Green at Chris’s Linguistics Blog. Interesting insight and overview of the Lingua Franca of various regions in Africa that goes beyond the obvious languages of former colonial empires.

Physical Anthropology

Chimpanzee Archaeology – stone tools used by chimps from 4,300 years ago, presented by Primatology.org, a blog run by a group of volunteers interested in the research, preservation, and conservation of primates. They’ve posted a discussion about the recent news of prehistoric chimpanzee tools discovered in West Africa’s Ivory Coast and dating to around 4,300 years ago. They’ve also included a second, related post: Video of nut cracking behavior of Chimpanzees, which you just have to see if you have any interest at all in primates.

Bones Of Contention Go Home, by Tim Jones at Remote Central. Tim posts a very interesting discussion of debate between Native Americans and archaeology with regard to repatriation of remains and artifacts to Native Tribes according to the the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, (NAGPRA). Not only is the discussion lively, but the links alone are worth the visit. Tell him I sent ya.

And the Valentine’s Day Special Entry:

Mantua, Italy’s Neolithic lovers locked in eternal embrace by Kambiz Kamrani. I’m sure everyone in the anthro/archaeo circles have seen this story by now, but Kambiz has a few good photos linked as well as some quotes from the original story. And if you haven’t seen it… you’re in for a treat. Is it just me, or do the two skeletons even create the shape of a heart?

The Rise of Sumerian Culture

There are those that might argue that no other single culture had such a lasting impact on humanity as that of the Sumerian. This is a bold position, but one that I hope to support at least well enough to give you a new perspective on Mesopotamian and Near Eastern civilizations and, perhaps, modernity.

In this post, I’ll briefly discuss the invention of writing and the culture, people and economy of Sumeria, and then ponder the origin of the Sumerians.

One of the most remarkable advancements of civilization is writing. In Mesopotamia, writing has been generally assigned as a Sumerian innovation that occurred in three main stages.

Stage one: clay tokens and hollow clay balls called bulla. The tokens themselves represented commodities like animals or grain and the hollow ball, the bulla, was used as a security device. The advantage of this sort of representation is that a trader could trade a herd of goats through a middle man without worry that the middle man might short the sale, keeping a few goats for himself. The middle man knows that the clay ball contains the representative number of goats in the form of clay tokens..

Stage two: bullae with clay tokens, but the outside incised or impressed with numerals. The information on the inside (the tokens) was duplicated on the outside (the impressions). Recording it on the outside probably reassured the middleman that the traders aren’t shorting him, since the number inside and out should both match. Any discrepancy would reveal the guilty party

Stage three: tablets
3a: numeral tablets. The earliest tablets are referred to as proto-cuneiform since they include symbols that refer to numbers. In economic transactions like trade, the most important things to keep track of are numbers. Documents like this are essentially methods of keeping track of numbers: numbers of cattle; numbers of goats; volume of grains like barley; numbers of slaves; etc.
3b: tablets with signs. In Mesopotamia, the earliest script, of course, was cuneiform. Produced by a wedge-shaped stylus, the scribe wrote on clay tablets that stored the text, particularly after firing the clay, for centuries. Once signs get introduced, they begin an evolution to script. A symbol for “head” is a very obvious pictograph that resembles a head in 3100 BCE during the Uruk period. A hundred years later, the relationship can still be made out. By 2500 BCE, however, the Sumerian symbol for head is more abstract and less obvious, though the relationship can be seen when put into context. By adding the symbol for “bread,” the Sumerian word Gu7 is produced, which means “to eat.”

Putting the advent of writing into perspective with regard to the Sumerian culture is important because of the many “firsts” this allowed the Sumerians to accomplish: the first novel, the first prescription, the first cosmogony, the first farmer’s almanac, the first law codes, and so on. Each of these found in clay tablets uncovered in excavations at sites like Ur, Eridu, and Uruk. It probably isn’t that other cultures didn’t think of these things or have stories, but until writing was invented, they hadn’t any way beyond oral tradition to effectively record them.

Sumerian writing had a profound effect on the rest of Mesopotamia as they engaged in trade to and from regions as far away as Egypt and Anatolia and perhaps even Afghanistan. Copper from Anatolia and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan found its way to Mesopotamia then on to Egypt where lapis was prized. But the Sumerians made good use of it as well.

The impact of Sumerian literature and writing on the ancient Near East is a lasting and profound one. Gilgamesh, clearly a Sumerian story, survived and was passed on to the Akkadians and the Babylonians, where most of the story as it is known today has survived. The story even resonates in Genesis where parts of the Noachian flood myth are nearly line-for-line correlates with Gilgamesh. Cuneiform script itself was adopted and used by cultures across Mesopotamia and Southern Anatolia as well as Egypt. Cuneiform was written in most languages of the day: Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, and Elamite included. And, even after Sumerian ceased being a spoken language, it continued to be an academic language for years much like Latin in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Sumerian People Culture and Economy.
Sumeria had two main centers, Eridu in the south and Nippur in the north, but it had 15 or so main and independent city-states including Eridu, Nippur, Mari, Agad, Ur, and Uruk. Each city-state had its own god or goddess. Eridu’s god was Enki and Uruk’s deity was the goddess Inanna (Ishtar).

The Sumerians adopted the agricultural practices of the region and many if not most of the words they used for agriculture, primitive industry, and local flora and fauna were Semitic or at least non-Sumerian. Words that related to law, politics, sophisticated metalworking and the like were all Sumerian. These distinctions give some clue as to what they brought with them and what was adopted upon arrival to the region. The Sumerians raised goats, pigs, sheep and cattle and grew typical Mesopotamian crops including wheat, barley, lentils, dates, etc., and they used donkeys as beasts of burden. Their agriculture depended heavily on irrigation and they made good use of the shaduf, a tool that allowed water to be lifted from one body and moved to another using a lever balanced on an upright frame. Such technology can lift 2,500 liters of water/day.

Because the region lacked minerals and trees, their architecture was primarily of mudbrick. Sumerians built intricate cities with streets, alleys, temples, and palaces as well as harbors and canals. Extravagant temples and palaces demonstrated that they had the ability to conscript intensive labor for public architecture as well as the wealth to make it happen. Immense ziggurats like that at Ur were constructed in dedication to their gods and aren’t generally believed to be actual places of worship or ceremony, at least not for the public. Indeed, many of the earliest cult centers were exclusive to elites and the public was kept away. The ziggurat may be a representation of mountains and the shrine at the top, if we are to believe Herodotus, was the place “on high” where the god resided. The ziggurat may even have influenced early Egyptian mastabas and the Genesis myth of the Tower of Babel may have been inspired by the ziggurats of Mesopotamia.

The origin of the Sumerian people.
The origin of the Sumerians is simply unknown. What is known is that they were non-Semitic. They didn’t originate from the region for which they are known. This presents some problems for archaeologists such as what were the pre-Sumerian cultures present in the region if the Sumerians are immigrants. And from where did the Sumerians originate. Linguistically speaking, Sumerian is an isolate. It has no known language family, making it even more difficult to pin down the origin of the culture.

One hypothesis is that the Sumerians were invaders at around the Ubaid or Uruk period, but this doesn’t follow since the archaeological record shows continuity from the early Ubaid through the Dynastic periods. Excavations at temple sites show occupation that is clearly Sumerian through lower levels where characteristically Sumerian features aren’t found. Identifiably Sumerian artifacts are found no earlier than the Jemdet Nasr period, but temples like the one at Eridu have levels that go back much further. The best evidence points to a type of acculturation occurring where a cultural exchange happened rather than an invasion.

But that still leaves the question of from where did the Sumerians come? One hypothesis that has fallen in and out of favor (mostly out as near as I can tell) is that the Sumerians arrived from the east via the Persian Gulf. Another is that they arrived from the north from mountainous regions. The latter might explain their affinity for “mountain-like” ziggurats as they attempted to recreate the conditions by which they worshipped in their homelands where shrines may have been constructed atop mountains. Their unique skills in metalworking might also offer a similar clue since ores for such trades would be more readily available in a mountainous homeland. Perhaps they are expatriates or refugees who fled the inundation of the Black Sea around 7150 years ago. This might even have provided an originating source of the flood myth prominent in the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh!

ArtiFACTS: Recent News in Archaeology and Anthropology

Second Temple in Jerusalem in wrong spot!, Bulgarian archaeologists want higher wages, New Discovery of Old Sarcophagi in Egypt, and the 5,000 year-old embrace will go uninterrupted.

These are some interesting stories and their links and discussion is below the fold!

Second Temple is in the wrong spot? Proffessor Joseph Patrich of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology thinks so. He thinks that the temple, its courtyards, its gates, and so on, should be south and east of the current location. The reason Patrich thinks the actual temple location is different is because of data he used that was gathered in 1866 by Charles Wilson during a survey that mapped an underground cistern.

[O]ne can “reconstruct” the placement of the laver (a large basin) that was used by the priests for their ritual washing, with the water being drawn by a waterwheel mechanism from the cistern. After this purification, the priests ascended the nearby ramp to the sacrificial altar. By thus locating the laver, the water wheel, the ramp and the altar, one can then finally map, again in coordination with the Mishna, the alignment of the Temple itself and its gates and chambers.

Patrich stands by the assertion that his work isn’t politically motivated in any way and that its purely academic, but with the tension that exists in the region and between the Palestinians and the Jews over what both consider to be a “holy site,” any new information or archaeological innovation deserves to be carefully vetted.

Three Painted Wooden Sarcophagi Recovered at Saqqara.
Japanese archaeologists recently unearthed the three coffins which dated to the Middle Kingdom, nearly 5,000 years ago. Two of the sarcophagi were designed for a man called Sabak Hatab and a woman named Sint Ayt Ess and these are the oldest. The third belongs to a New Kingdom owner of the 18th Dynasty, ca. 1,500 BCE.

5,000 Year-Old Embrace Will not Be Disturbed
The much-linked to find of the “stone-age lovers” who were in time for Valentine’s Day and emailed to every archaeologist and anthropologist with a computer will not have their embrace interrupted in the name of science.

Buried 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, researchers will scoop the whole site and remove it instead of removing it bone-by-bone. Lots of interesting facts surround the couple: they were buried the wrong way (north-south, instead of east-west like contemporaries), together instead of singly, heads intact instead of decapitated, etc. And lots of speculation exists about their demise.

I say the man died and his family buried the love of his life with him since they new he couldn’t stand to be without her.